What I’ve always known—cognitively—is beginning to sink deeply in—emotionally—with emphasis on the word “sink,” and pulling me down with it: I cannot fix this. I do not have the power to heal the illness, to strengthen the tired muscles. The canes and walkers and wheelchairs, the doctor visits and blood draws and MRIs, the heart monitors and blood pressure cuffs, the shakiness and fatigue, the “take your pills” and “drink more water” and the worry worry worry—they are all here to stay. I am riding this streetcar with Mom and Dad to the fim da linha, the end of the line. One day, the streetcar will come to a stop and Mom and Dad will get off, and I will wave good-bye. And then the car will start again and turn some corner and carry me toward other stops. Until then, my power is found in my weakness, my strength in my service. All I can do is cook and clean and comfort, and listen, and love. And this is enough. In fact, this is the job. The job is not to fix anything as we ride the streetcar together, but to be with them for the duration of the ride, and to make the ride as comfortable and peace-filled and happy as my siblings and I can.
I have been shouting a lot lately. Not because I am a brute or a bully or an offended narcissist, but because the hearing aid batteries seem to go dead every day. Or the hearing aids are not being worn. A person cannot wear hearing aids comfortably, of course, when mowing the lawn—such amplified sound would rattle their teeth and ruin what’s left of their hearing. And there is the surgical mask, which, when removed, catches on the hearing aid and flings it across the church parking lot. What an indignity to continually be shouted at, to have to ask “What?” and “Hmm?” all the time, to miss the happy songs of finches at sunset.
Dad keeps his lawn green and trimmed and mowed. The lawn gets nourished monthly with the correct kind of fertilizer, and enjoys a haircut twice a week. Donning a straw hat against the sun and potential skin cancer, he drives his red riding mower, curving around the beds of bushes and flowers, happy to be in the saddle. A neighbor commented, “Nelson, you are the most determined man I’ve ever seen in caring for a yard.” One Friday night in spring, Dad asked me if I would fertilize the lawn first thing Saturday morning so that the coming snow would dissolve the fertilizer into the turf. Come morning, however, the lawn was buried in four inches of heavy wet snow. Not wanting Dad to be disappointed, I ventured to push the spreader anyway. With two wheels on the “ground” the spreader merely pushed against the snow. But with one wheel on the ground—the wheel geared to the spreader—and the other elevated, I made good progress. It is often hard to see where one has fertilized because the spreader swath is three feet on either side, and I lose track of where I’ve been. I did not have this problem now because the fertilizer sat on the surface of the snow. Unfortunately, the grains of this particular fertilizer were yellow, and now Dad’s entire yard was covered with yellow snow. Dad was astonished, having never seen fertilized snow. He commented, “Roger—it looks like the whole lawn was trampled by peeing deer.” Indeed, deer are frequent visitors, eating down spring’s lily shoots. Just yesterday I watched a nearby mule deer doe watching Dad as he string trimmed. Now, at summer’s end, the grass is green green. Dad cut the grass again last night. Now it’s my turn to do my job: take the push mower around the places where the riding mower can’t easily maneuver. And empty the bags of cut grass.
I am wallowing in self-reproach. Mom fell in the shower. She does not remember falling. She remembers only waking up on the floor, the water sprinkling down on her, the door flung open. And I did not know. And Dad did not know. I asked her at breakfast about the scratch on the bridge of her nose, but she did not know where it came from. As she sat in her Sunday dress, ready to go to church, Dad asked her how she felt. “Not so good,” she said, seeming very tired. I passed it off as a symptom of the sinus infection she is getting over. She told me later about her slumping from her chair. That morning I had awoken with a start when I thought I heard a bang. I could hear water tinkling. Remembering how the shower door clangs when it closes, I thought nothing more of it. We went to church like normal, moving a little slower. I cooked all afternoon to give Mom and Dad a nice Sunday dinner: tilapia poached in white wine with green onions, sauced with creamy mushroom-clam sauce. For dessert I made crepes stuffed with vanilla-cream sauced apples. It all tasted divine. But all I could think about as I cooked and ate and washed dishes was not being there when Mom needed me. I was there, in the same house, on the same floor, in the room next door, with Mom lying unconscious on the shower floor, being drizzled with warm water. But I was not there for her. I could have revived her, helped her up, given her care and attention. But I was not there. All this fancy French food and the effort it took and the palatable pleasure it brought meant nothing. What would have meant something was following through on the waking start and investigating assertively and helping my mother when she needed me. The bruise on her cheek bone is starting to show.
I have asked Mom and Dad to save up for me the little chores they would like me to do when I come home from work. I’m no handyman, but I can do the little things: change a furnace filter, snap in a new smoke alarm battery, carry toilet paper to the basement bathroom, heft the water softener salt into the tank, unclog the corner rain gutter, snip out the old dog wire, tighten a door knob, pull the empty garbage cans back from the curb. These little chores give me pleasure, not only because they are quick and easy, and not only because I am capable of doing them, but also because Mom and Dad appreciate me for doing these little chores: my doing them makes their lives just that much easier.
One of my purposes is to make mealtime easy, healthy, and pleasant for Mom and Dad, by cooking dinner for them. For two years I have enjoyed cooking for them occasionally on a weekend. Now it can be every day, if wanted. It brings me pleasure to bring them pleasure. I have always wanted to learn to speak French and cook French. I study French lessons on Duo Lingo once or twice a week—I may become competent in ten years so. And after watching Julie & Julia in 2020, I bought the 50th anniversary edition of Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This week we enjoyed (1) quiche in a buttery shell with green onions, mushrooms, spinach, and ham, (2) salmon soufflé, (3) crêpes with Splenda-sweetened fresh fruit and almond whipping cream (for my son Caleb’s 22nd birthday “cake”), (4) carrots and parsnips glazed in a buttery sweet sauce, and (5) cream of mushroom soup, all from Julia’s book. I have fun cooking delicious, appealing food, and we all enjoy consuming it. The recipes were hard at first, but have become second nature with repetition. Dad sent me an email today, “I will be cooking dinner tonight.” These six words implied so much: (a) I can cook, too; (b) I want to cook, too; (c) I love to cook, too; (d) I can do things; (e) I want to share the load; (f) thank you for your cooking; (g) I want to take a turn; (h) I want to do something nice for you like you do for us; and, (i) isn’t it wonderful how people take raw ingredients and make such creative, delicious dishes? So, tonight he cooked delicious “saucy pork burrito rice bowls” with ingredients and recipe provided by Hello Fresh. When I asked if I could be his sous chef, he said sure. As the three of us sat at the table with our fragrant rice bowls, Dad remarked, “We made this, together, didn’t we Rog!” We did. And it was very tasty.
My church encourages its members to have on hand one year’s supply of food in case of emergency. The Covid-19 pandemic affirmed that food storage isn’t a fool’s errand. After being counseled my whole life, and after six months of Covid, I finally started acquiring food storage. Not just staples, but things I would enjoy and that would be good for me. Canned: refried beans; sweet potatoes; mackerel; sweet corn; green beans; mandarin oranges; spaghetti sauce; diced tomatoes; black beans. Baking: flour; sugar; brown sugar; baking powder; corn meal; cassava flour; vegetable shortening; a gallon of vegetable oil; a gallon of corn syrup. Spices: garlic; onion; cinnamon. Bouillon cubes for chicken and beef broth. Pasta: angel hair (my favorite). Bottled water. Powdered milk. A stove in a can. Two hundred tea candles and pint-jar lanterns. I hope I don’t have to find out how long these stores, combined with their own, would last Mom, Dad, and me. But I have them just in case, in boxes, on shelves in Mom’s basement cold storage room.
I packed 30 boxes in one night. Packing boxes is such an odd life experience. Into each box I put my books, my genealogical records, my decorations, my journals. I seem to have more books and binders than any other type of possession. I cannot bear to part with the good books I have read, so into the boxes they go, with the label “Books: Read.” My latest favorites: The Plover by Brian Doyle, about a scarred sailor on a small sailboat who takes on several characters and through them heals his wounds; and, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, about the pervasive systematic racist policies of U.S. Government agencies that caused African Americans to suffer gross inequities in housing availability and affordability, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, adequate incomes, quality schools, clean environments, loan and mortgage equity, wealth generation, and military benefits. Each book has walked me in the shoes of great men and women, has taken me to new realms of science, has filled me with joy and sadness and that sick feeling that comes from reading about human cruelty. And when my bookshelves are empty and the boxes are full, I feel empty and bereft, as if my compartmentalized personality has been divided into boxes with labels, packed away to be loaded onto a truck and driven to my knew home and stacked in a corner of the basement until this new chapter, of which I have barely turned the first page, has ended (and I hope it is a long chapter). Then, I will carry the boxes again, still unopened, to some other domicile, where they will be unpacked and their contents organized on shelves and tables until my children come to care for me.
I didn’t go to Wal-Mart for boxes. I went there for snacks, including cheddar fish crackers, for a day trip to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Hannah at Tuacahn. But there was the cheerful Pepperidge Farms lady collapsing boxes by the dozen, happy to give them to me when I asked. Packing is always a daunting task, and it starts with building boxes. With Ken Burns’ 20-hour Jazz playing b-bop and avant-garde, I started folding and taping flaps, and tossing the boxes in a heap. I feel so sad for genius Charlie Parker, playing sax music from heaven while drugs dragged him down to a living hell, with death at 34. At DVD’s end, the living room was a heap of empty cracker boxes, about to be filled with books I may never read but yet carry around by the decade. My life feels about to be reduced to a stack of heavy boxes marked “books.” But mine is a good life: I will have a safe, loving place to live with, and care for, my generous parents. Safe places—that is what we should be building. I guess it starts with building boxes. Forty down; so many to go.
With the plan in place, and the miracles having come about, the time to get to work had arrived. Boxing. Cleaning. Moving. Adjusting. Saying good-byes. And with that work came the second guessing. What was I thinking to invite this change? I am moving from my home, where I am comfortable and safe. I will be lengthening my commute from 3 miles to 53, from ten minutes to an hour, each way. I will be working day and night, six days a week. I will be living in someone else’s space. I will be giving up my solitary time for reading, writing, and film. Did I do the right thing? And yet, I know with a conviction, as powerful as any I ever received before, that this is the right thing to do. This is missionary work, and I have been called to this mission. I am holding on to that sure knowledge as I enter into a time of transition, a time of belonging neither in the old place nor in the new. I am holding onto that conviction and moving forward with faith, however weak.
I work as a municipal attorney for a small Utah town, advising the elected Mayor and City Council, the Planning Commission, and City department heads. This has been my work for 28 years. I rarely plan my days, which unfold in a never-ending series of problems and challenges, demands and crises. (I disfavor the word “crisis,” which takes a mere situation and elevates it to a crisis, with all the increased stress of a crisis, instead of making the same situation simply something to solve.) Working 50 hours a week in Tooele, plus ten hours of commuting, would hardly be conducive to fulfilling my primary purpose to care for my parents. For the plan to work, I would need permission to work a flexible, non-traditional schedule. Again, I solicited family prayers. I presented my plan and my proposed schedule to my boss, the Mayor. She enthusiastically approved, and even thanked me for choosing to help my parents at this point in their lives. I will work four partial days a week in Tooele, plus remote hours from home on those days, plus working remotely from home on Fridays, and when needed on Saturdays. I will still attend City Council meetings on Wednesday nights—after a career of some 5,000 Wednesday-night meetings, I see my week as Wednesday to Tuesday instead of Sunday to Saturday. Anyway, this schedule, hopefully, will allow me both to work full-time and to be home enough to make a difference for Mom and Dad. To my eye, this is another miracle. If the schedule itself is not, the kindness certainly is.
#4. Despite my conviction of needing to help Mom and Dad, I had to make sure my siblings agreed with the plan. I wrote to my four sisters and only brother to express my concerns for Mom’s and Dad’s health and safety (concerns they all shared), and to seek their blessing for me to move in. As a career municipal attorney, I have seen too many instances of children and grandchildren moving in with their parents and grandparents, manipulating them, taking advantage of them, and taking their money and property. Though my siblings know I am not such a person, still I felt it necessary to have their consent for me to assume such a trusted position with their parents. All five wrote back to me with love and gratitude and support. Megan wrote, “I support you 110%.” Carolyn wrote, “We are behind you.” Sarah, Jeanette, and Steven also gave their enthusiastic support. I knew that with their love and trust, perhaps I could do this. Their blessing in hand, now it was time to consult with Mom and Dad.
#3. The need is now. I am pondering the circumstances of my availability to leave my own home and to live with my parents in theirs. I find myself divorced and living alone. My seven children are mostly raised, with the youngest learning to drive. Five years have been sufficient to transition out of the trauma of exile and isolation. In those years I focused on healing, and too much, perhaps, on my own life, my little knick knacks, my art on the walls, my books, my mountain bike, my blog, my baking, my time, my my my . . . . It is time, perhaps, to look more outward, more toward the welfare of someone other than myself. And it is time for me to be available to do what I can do. My siblings are dedicated, loving persons, and could do so much better at caregiving than me. They already do so much. But they are not available to do some of what requires doing. I am available. So, the privilege and the responsibility are mine, and I cheerfully accept.
#2. I had planned to move in with Mom and Dad, if need be, in about a year, after my lease expired. But the evil lawn mower incident convinced me to move immediately. Dad loves his lawn: a source of pride and joy and exercise. Monthly fertilizer has yielded a deep emerald green turf, which Dad cuts twice a week on his riding mower. Plus: string trimming, driveway edging, shrub shaping, limb pruning, and dandelion digging—spread throughout the week in manageable increments. The push mower is for the corners the riding mower won’t reach. When Dad was pushing the mower downhill toward the garage one day, it ran away from him and dumped him on the concrete driveway. Providentially, Dad broke no bones. I knew that a broken hip or leg, or a blow to the head, could have been the beginning of the end, with long-term convalescence away from home. When they told me what had happened, I received a sudden conviction: now was the time—immediately—to move in with Mom and Dad and do what I could to keep them in their home for the remainder of their days (may they be long).